When you look too long into the Abyss, said Nietzsche, the Abyss looks into you. "And," adds comedian Brother Theodore, "neither one of us likes what we see."
That's what the economic pronouncements of Republican politicians are like nowadays. Instead of a governing philosophy, all one sees is a yawning intellectual abyss. Their core ideas are so unpopular and discredited that party leaders only express them in passing. But, without them, the party is reduced to a set of rhetorical and ideological tics in search of a host organism.
The newly negotiated budget agreement is a perfect example of this process in action. The GOP got some giveaways to its wealthy patrons. But instead of acting on principle, their other demands were merely a series of poses and stances with no unifying theme. Here are some examples, courtesy of The Washington Post's "The Fix":
- A ban on federal funding to provide prisoners with abortions (Why? Do Republicans want to force convicted felons to reproduce?);
- A billion-dollar cut to the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which isn't part of Obamacare, because the Republicans want to cut funds for Obamacare. (Either that, or they oppose the prevention of disease);
- A $10 million cut to the Independent Payment Advisory Board -- conveniently referred to by the GOP as a "death panel," because it does things like advise against paying a hospital $250 for the use of a light bulb. (Apparently they think these kinds of payment decisions should be made by for-profit insurance companies, as God intended);
- A third of a billion dollars cut from the Transportation Security Agency budget -- what the heck, it's only terrorism -- but a funding increase for private contractors (because nothing demonstrates the growth potential of the private sector more than showering it with public money);
- A quarter of a billion dollar reduction in the budget for embassy security and here they've been complaining about Benghazi);
- A block on requiring federal contractors to disclose their campaign contributions (it's trickier to take payoffs -- excuse me, I mean to hear corporate speech -- if you have to disclose it);
- A ban on funding for new lightbulb standards (write your own "How many Republicans does it take ...?" joke here);
- And, a ban on federal funding for the painting of official portraits (henceforth to be known as the "Government Officials' 'Selfie' Act of 2014").
Republican principles? Turn me on, dead man.
Alex Pareene points out that at least one of these measures is based on a discredited conspiracy theory from radio host Alex Jones' paranoid InfoWars website, and another is based on a viral right-wing myth about the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican. The State Department was planning to save money -- which Republicans used to like doing -- by moving it to the same grounds as the U.S. Embassy to Italy, which is in the same place. In their minds, that became a measure to abolish the Vatican embassy altogether.
Fans of the television sitcom Friends may recall the episode in which Joey became Chandler's roommate ... and Chandler ceased to exist. Wait, there was no such episode? The Vatican embassy wouldn't cease to exist, either.
Okay, these demands were nonsensical. But the GOP still has core values, doesn't it? Last month Sen. Tom Coburn didn't like an earlier agreement, the Rep. Paul Ryan/Patti Murray deal, because "we gave up core values." Which ones? "We called non-tax increases tax increases."
That's what passes for "core values" among prominent Republicans nowadays.
At least the Tea Party folks do have core values, albeit deluded and frightening ones. One is tempted to paraphrase John Goodman's character from The Big Lebowski: Say what you will about the tenets of right-wing extremism, Dude, but at least it's an ethos.
Republicans used to talk about reducing government deficits. That's a very bad idea at time like these, but at least it's an idea. Now many of their proposals actually increase it. And while they resist direct government spending, they're often eager to give taxpayer money to private corporations (as the TSA deal in this budget agreement demonstrates).
Republicans claim they support economic growth, which if done right leads to private-sector jobs. But consider this sentence, from a Republican description of the party's budget?
"While the scoring models that the CBO and JCT use will not account for it, this legislation, if enacted, would boost economic growth."
Wait. What? Did they just say that neither the Congressional Budget Office nor the Joint Committee for Taxation believes that their budget will "boost economic growth"? This hard-hitting takedown of a GOP claims doesn't come from The Huffington Post, CounterPunch, or Salon. It was written by Republican staffers for the House/Senate Joint Economic Committee, and promoted on the website of the House Republican Conference.
Republicans insist their plan will boost growth anyway. They "prove" it by filling their staffers' "report" with voodoo-ized language that's the economic equivalent of those old maps that said "Here there be dragons."
The mendacity and deception are no longer surprising. What is surprising is the seeming listlessness of it all, the sense that party leaders and operatives are just going through the motions. Watching senior GOP politicians nowadays is like watching a road company of Cats after four or five years of playing mid-sized towns. They can still sing "The Rum Tum Tugger," but they can't really put their hearts into it.
The Republican Party may not have an ideology anymore, but it still has an agenda: the continued enrichment of the corporations and billionaires that finance it, at the expense of everyone else. Democrats would be wise to stop celebrating the deals they strike with these folks, at least until they explain the absurd things they were forced to do to get those deals.
Of course, there are politicians in both parties who live to serve the interests of corporations and the wealthy. But at least the Democrats have a core ideology, even if some of them are routinely untrue to it. It says that government has an important and constructive role to play in the life of a people. Elected Republicans claim to disagree -- then use government as an ATM for themselves and their sponsors.
That's not an ideology. It's a racket.
It's harrowing to watch the GOP's leading politicians shed even the pretense of principle in its pursuit of campaign cash and cushy post-political gigs. There's no creed left in this party, not even a conservative one. There's only an Abyss. You can stare into it, and you can let it stare into you, but trust me: Neither one of you will like what you see.